Reinventing Nature Conservation Education as a key tool for EE and ESD

Dr Erach Bharucha, Director, Bharati Vidyapeeth Institute of Environment Education and Research
A surgeon by profession, Dr Bharucha has been active in wildlife and nature conservation for nearly fifty years. A well-known wildlife photographer, he has traveled extensively and studied Indian National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries. In 1993, he began developing the Bharati Vidyapeeth Institute of Environment Education and Research (BVIEER). He has been engaged in implementing a variety of environmental education programmes for schools and colleges and for the public at large.

The educational processes of the life sciences have had a long tradition of Natural History. Taught to children as ‘Nature Education’, it was primarily done through developing their observational skills in the field. Thisled to some people developing a deeper interest in Natural History, Botany and Zoology. Others became professionals in specific fields of biosciences. For some it continued as a hobby and some even became great amateur naturalists, or researchers. The educational inputs were primarily taxonomic. However, in more recent times this has led to an interest in behavioral ecology of species and finally habitat and ecosystem studies.

Globalization has led less-developed nations to damage their own natural resources, including degradation of soil and water resources. The growing impacts of economic development during the last few decades requireda change in the nature education approach. Ill effects of climate change and other disturbances of Nature such as biodiversity loss, serious human health issues and abject poverty were portrayed to society through a gloomy perspective of approaching doom.

In many instances this grew into a negative feeling, especially among children and young adults. It provided a sense of guilt, unhappiness, and an inability to act against the enormous load of degradation changes that the Earth was suffering on their account. It paralyzed rather than created pro- conservation action.

During this period, the beauty of nature was overshadowed by the need to reverse human impacts on our earth. This trend in Environment Education which was followed in the ‘70’s and into the ‘90’s through formal curricular processes, was expected to lead to corrective measures through societal change. In our country EE was also furthered at the behest of the Honorable Supreme Court, giving a directive to the Ministries of HRD and MoEF to introduce EE into curricula. This infusion of EE based on issues such as pollution control, tree plantation, and energy conservation thus seeped into school curricula. Nature Education was left behind as being essentially non-formal and unimportant.

A new paradigm for Sustainable Development emerged in the 80sand 90s. It also created the need for newer learning tools, which could demonstrate the linkages between ecological issues, societal concerns and environmental aspects, embedded in an overarching umbrella of governance. For many individuals Education for Sustainable Development was seen as EE in another form, and was perceived as a vehicle for unnecessary complex and quazi scientific jargon. It was yet another ‘turn off’, leaving behind the need for empathy to Nature.

At the turn of the century the approach of a possible biodiversity extinction spasm began to be viewed as a major environmental catastrophe. Biodiversity conservation, as a key concern for humanity, has led to the need for a new and currently relevant approach to Nature Education that can recreate empathy with Nature. The old educational pedagogy will have to move away froma purely taxonomic approach (as in the past) to a deeper understanding of the linkages between species, ecosystems, landscapes and human beings.

Understanding Biodiversity Knowledge
The growing trend of wildlife tourism in India and the popularity of Discovery Channel and Animal Planet are evidences of growing interest in nature in India.

Studies at BVIEER show that there is a need for reinventing connected-ness between individuals and the ‘natural world’. As part of a BVIEER outreachproject, flash cards of animals were shown to rural and urban children to appreciate, which they knew, what species interested them or excited their curiosity. The children who lived around a Protected Area and had a personal exposure to the wilderness, (unlike children from an urban background) did not have the advantage of appropriate formal education, or other extracurricular inputs. They had a heightened awareness of local wildlife as they saw these animals around their settlements.

Content analyses of school text books showed that greater and more relevant inputs on biodiversity are needed at school level. However urban children who do not get a chance to experience nature first hand are not necessarily unaware of the richness of biodiversity in our country. Much of this information is from electronic media and non- curricular books. This understanding of the ‘existence value’ of wild species cannot be expected to be as effective as real life ‘experiential learning’.

College students’ knowledge baseon biodiversity which has been tested through semi structured interviews and visuals of wildlife, demonstrated the poor level of knowledge of biodiversity in college students. Content analysis of the UGC Text Book for the Core Module Course prepared by BVIEER showed that if this text book is read carefully, and understood by students at the undergraduatelevel (in all subjects) they will be adequately informed about biodiversity conservation and relevant ecological concepts. During the survey it was observed that students did not take the subject seriously, which was either because of the incompetence of their teachers to deliver the course in an interesting way, or the fact that it is not a subject that contributes to their grades.

The study of Nature Interpretation sessions by NGOs and nature tour operators was found to be inadequate to fulfill the needs of the participants. They followed a taxonomic approach which cannot be expected to further a greater interest and concern for biodiversity that could lead to action.

The findings revealed that the knowledge of biodiversity in school children, college students and adults was inadequate to create a pro-biodiversity conservation ethic in a majority of respondents.

Reinventing Nature Education
Innovative strategies have been conceptualized and tested to reinvent Nature Education. For example, participants may be introduced to the intricacies of the web of life on a nature trail and facilitated to explore those on their own too. Sessions that build upon the charisma of the tiger and other species, and emphasize the beauty of nature can be introduced into nature trails. Field exposure must be incorporated into formal and non- formal education systems for enhancing awareness on the values of biodiversity, and creating empathy towards Nature. This leads to actions for sustainability in an individual’s daily life.

At school level the approach to reinvent Nature education may be two-fold. Improving the skills of identification of locale specific species that people can observe, and bringing in a sense of appreciation for the beauty within Nature. This is of prime importance during early childhood when there is a natural interest in animal life. The knowledgeof intricate ecological concepts needsto be built into the learnings of older school children. School text books should discuss the need for wildlife and nature conservation in great detail. There should be short field trips that foster an appreciation for Nature and help them relate classroom teaching to their own environment.

At college level, experiences in Nature and a scientific documentation of observations made in well planned Nature Awareness Areas should be a
focus. Ecological concepts of a higher level of complexity such as island biogeography and eco-restoration, eco- sensitive areas, the need for Protected Area Networks, as well as threats dueto habitat fragmentation and wildlife poaching need to be discussed in the classroom by their teachers and explored in the field.

Capacity building in adults from different walks of life at various levels is essential. Non formal Nature Education must become more accessible and affordable for all sections of society. Using the feeling of discovery at experiencing nature’s wonders produces a strong empathy towards nature. This initiating ‘Ah ha!’ must be used by an interpreter to take the individual closer to nature, appreciate ecological services, and link this to human impacts that can destroy the splendor of the wilderness.

These initiatives, when put together, reorient Nature Education towards current needs. The empathy for Nature produced through these newly developed strategies for Nature interpretation and education must move through the thread of Natural History into Environment Education and Education for Sustainable Development. Nature herself provides the trigger and real life experiences of wildlife and an appreciation of its beautiful habitats. It provides the key to an empathy with the earth.

Thus, reinventing Nature Education can create a better and deeper understanding of the concepts related to EE and ESD and lead to sustainable lifestyles.

For more information contact:
Dr Erach Bharucha, Director
Bharati Vidyapeeth Institute of Environment Education and Research
Bharati Vidyapeeth Deemed University,
Katraj, Pune – 411043
Ph: 020 – 24375684; 24362155

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